—Alice Hoffman, The New York Times Book Review
"When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy." With that opening sentence we enter the childhood world of one of the most appealing young heroines in contemporary fiction. Her courage, her humor, and her wisdom are unforgettable as she tells her own story with stunning honesty and insight. An Oprah Book Club selection, this powerful novel has become an American classic.
Winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the Ernest Hemingway Foundation's Citation for Fiction.
About the Author
Hometown:Raleigh, North Carolina, and New York, New York
Date of Birth:May 5, 1960
Place of Birth:Nash County, North Carolina
Education:Attended North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1978-1983
Read an Excerpt
When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.
The way I liked best was letting go a poisonous spider in his bed. It would bite him and he'd be dead and swollen up and I would shudder to find him so. Of course I would call the rescue squad and tell them to come quick something's the matter with my daddy. When they come in the house I'm all in a state of shock and just don't know how to act what with two colored boys heaving my dead daddy onto a roller cot. I
just stand in the door and look like I'm shaking all over.
But I did not kill my daddy. He drank his own self to death the year after the County moved me out. I heard how they found him shut up in the house dead and everything. Next thing I know he's in the ground and the house is rented out to a family of four.
All I did was wish him dead real hard every now and then. And I can say for a fact that I am better off now than when he was alive.
I live in a clean brick house and mostly I am left to myself. When I start to carry an odor I take a bath and folks tell me how sweet I look.
There is a plenty to eat here and if we run out of something we just go to the store and get some more. I had me a egg sandwich for breakfast, mayonnaise on both sides. And I may fix me another one for lunch.
Two years ago I did not have much of anything. Not that I live in the lap of luxury now but I am proud for the schoolbus to pick me up here every morning. My stylish well-groomed self standing in the front yard with the grass green and the hedge bushes square.
I figure I made out pretty good considering the rest of my family is either dead or crazy.
Every Tuesday a man comes and gets me out of social studies and we go into a room and talk about it all.
Last week he spread out pictures of flat bats for me to comment on. I mostly saw flat bats. Then
I saw big holes a body could fall right into. Big black deep holes through the table and the floor.
And then he took off his glasses and screwed his face up to mine and tells me I'm scared.
I used to be but I am not now is what I told him. I might get a little nervous but I am never scared.
Oh but I do remember when I was scared. Everything was so wrong like somebody had knocked something loose and my family was shaking itself to death. Some wild ride broke and the one in charge strolled off and let us spin and shake and fly off the rail. And they both died tired of the wild crazy spinning and wore out and sick. Now you tell me if that is not a fine style to die in. She sick and he drunk with the moving. They finally gave in to the motion and let the wind take them from here to there.
Even my mama's skin looked tired of holding her weak self. She would prop herself up by the refrigerator and watch my daddy go round the table swearing at all who did him wrong. She looked all sad in her face like it was all her fault.
She could not help getting sick but nobody made her marry him. You see when she was my size she had romantic fever I think it is called and since then she has not had a good heart.
She comes home from the hospital sometimes. If I was her I would stay there. All laid up in the air conditioning with folks patting your head and bringing you fruit baskets.
Oh no. She comes in and he lets into her right away. Carrying on. Set up in his E-Z lounger like he is King for a Day. You bring me this or that he might say.
She comes in the door and he asks about supper right off. What does she have planned? he wants to know. Wouldn't he like to know what I myself have planned? She would look at him square in the face but not at his eyes or mouth but at his whole face and the ugliness getting out through the front. On he goes about supper and how come weeds are growed up in the yard.
More like a big mean baby than a grown man.
I got her suitcase in my hand and I carry it to the bedroom. But while I walk I listen to him and to her not saying a word back to him. She stand between his mean highness and the television set looking at him make words at her.
Big wind-up toy of a man. He is just too sorry to talk back to even if he is my daddy. And she is too limp and too sore to get up the breath to push the words out to stop it all. She just stands there and lets him work out his evil on her.
Get in the kitchen and fix me something to eat. I had to cook the whole time you was gone, he tells her.
And that was some lie he made up. Cook for his own self. Ha. If I did not feed us both we had to go into town and get take-out chicken. I myself was looking forward to something fit to eat but I was not about to say anything.
If anybody had asked me what to do I would have told us both to feed on hoop cheese and crackers. Somebody operated on needs to stay in the bed without some husband on their back all the time. But she does not go on to the bedroom but turns right back around and goes to the kitchen. What can I do but go and reach the tall things for her? I set that dinner table and like to take a notion to spit on his fork.
Nobody yells after anybody to do this or that here.
My new mama lays out the food and we all take a turn to dish it out. Then we eat and have a good time. Toast or biscuits with anything you please. Eggs any style. Corn cut off the cob the same day we eat it. I keep my elbows off the table and wipe my mouth like a lady. Nobody barks, farts, or feeds the dogs under the table here. When everybody is done eating my new mama puts the dishes in a thing, shuts the door, cuts on it, and Wa-La they are clean.
My mama does not say a word about being tired or sore. She did ask who kept everything so clean and he took the credit. I do not know who he thinks he fooled. I knew he lied and my mama did too. She just asked to be saying something.
Mama puts the food out on the table and he wants to know what I am staring at. At you humped over your plate like one of us is about to snatch it from you. You old hog. But I do not say it.
Why don't you eat? he wants to know.
I don't have an appetite, I say back.
Well, you better eat. Your mama looks like this might be her last supper.
He is so sure he's funny that he laughs at his own self.
All the time I look at him and at her and try to figure out why he hates her so bad. When he is not looking I give him the evil eye. And mama looks like she could crawl under the table and cry.
We leave his nasty self at that table and go to bed. She is sore all up through her chest and bruised up the neck. It makes me want to turn my head.
We peel her dress off over the head and slip on something loose to sleep in. I help her get herself laid in the bed and then I slide in beside her. She just turns her head into the pillow.
I will stay here with you. Just for a nap I will stay here with you.
Now at my new mama's I lay up late in the day and watch the rain fall outside. Not one thing is pressing on me to get done here.
I have a bag of candy to eat on. One piece at a time. Make it last. All I got left to do is eat supper and wash myself.
Look around my room. It is so nice.
When I accumulate enough money I plan to get some colored glass things that you dangle from the window glass. I lay here and feature how that would look. I already got pink checkerboard curtains with dingleballs around the edges. My new mama sewed them for me. She also sewed matching sacks that I cram my pillows into every morning.
Everything matches. It is all so neat and clean.
When I finish laying here with these malted milk balls I will smooth the covers down and generally clean up after myself. Maybe then I will play with the other people. But I might just lay here until the chicken frying smells ready to eat.
I do not know if she hears him go out the back door. She is still enough to be asleep. He goes off in the truck like he has some business to tend to. And you know and I know he's gone to get himself something to drink. Then he brings it into this house like he is Santa Claus. He sets his package beside his chair and then eases his lazy self into place. Yelling at somebody, meaning myself, to turn on the television set. I could chew nails and spit tacks.
The yelling makes my mama jump and if she was asleep she is awake now. Grits her teeth every time he calls out damn this or that. The more he drinks the less sense he makes.
By the time the dog races come on he's stretched out on the bathroom floor and can't get up. I
know I need to go in there and poke him. Same thing every Saturday. This week in particular she does not need to find some daddy hog rooted all up against the toilet stool.
I get up and go in there and tell him to get up that folks got to come in here and do their business.
He can go lay in the truck.
He just grunts and grabs at my ankle and misses.
Get on up I say again to him. You got to be firm when he is like this. He'd lay there and rot if I let him so I nudge him with my foot. I will not touch my hands to him. Makes me want to heave my own self seeing him pull himself up on the sink. He zig-zags out through the living room and I
guess he makes it out the door. I don't hear him fall down the steps.
And where did she come from? Standing in the door looking at it all.
Get back in bed, I say to mama.
Mama's easy to tend to. She goes back in the bedroom. Not a bit of trouble. Just stiff and hard to move around. I get her back in the bed and tell her he's outside for the night. She starts to whimper and I say it is no reason to cry. But she will wear herself out crying.
I ought to lock him out.
A grown man that should be bringing her food to nibble on and books to look at. No but he is taking care of his own self tonight. Just like she is not sick or kin to him.
A storm is coming up. And I will lay here with my mama until I see her chest rise up and sink down regular. Deep and regular and far away from the man in the truck.
I can smell the storm and see the air thick with the rain coming.
He will sleep through the thunder and rain. And oh how I have my rage and desire for the lightning to come and strike a vengeance on him. But I do not control the clouds or the thunder.
And the way the Lord moves in his business.
Reading Group Guide
1. Ellen is searching for a home. How does she define home at the beginning of the novel, and how does she refine her definition during the course of the narrative? What examples of family life and of parenthood has she had to guide her? How do the various parents she observes measure up? What message does Ellen receive during the course of the book about parents and parenthood? Is Gibbons's point that, in the end, family members are unreliable? That one can rely on no one but oneself?
2. Ellen is a person who is inclined to make lists; she is very concerned with order. What attempts does she make to introduce order into her own life? What is the source of this need for order and what light does it shed on Ellen's personality? How does this character trait relate to Ellen's instinct for survival? How does the theme of control and personal responsibility come up in relation to the novel's other characters? How does it relate to the deaths of Ellen's mother and grandmother?
3. Why have none of the concerned adults in Ellen's lifeher teachers, Starletta's parents, Julia and Roy, Mavisbeen able to rescue her from the dreadful and dangerous life she leads within her own family? How does this failure reflect upon the nature of Ellen's society? What is it about the life even of a small and interconnected community that keeps people from being able to help a desperate child? Is the legal system at fault? The social one?
4. "People say they do not try to be white" [p. 29], Ellen says about Starletta's parents. What does this tell us about them and about the society they live in? What does Ellen's initial description of Starletta's home reveal about Ellen herself? What details in her narrative expose her assumptions about black people? By extension, what do they show about her own vision of herself and her family? How do these assumptions change, and what causes them to do so? How does Ellen's observation of Mavis and her family contribute to her changing attitudes? Ellen's grandmother said she would learn something from picking cotton. What, in fact, does she learn?
5. "Nobody but a handful of folks I know pays attention to rules about how you treat somebody anyway," Ellen reflects. "But as I lay in that bed and watch my Starletta fall asleep I figure that if they could fight a war over how I'm supposed to think about her then I'm obligated to do it" [p. 126]. What discovery has Ellen made here? Why is Starletta's weekend visit so significant to Ellen? Do you think the author is saying that Ellen is now a person without prejudice?
6. The South's violent history of slavery, war, and racial hatred is the unstated background for this story. How does Gibbons make us aware of its silent presence? To what degree is Ellen herself aware of it? Is the contemporary black experience as she observes it still based upon the fact of slavery, paid or unpaid? What is Ellen's way of personally coping with this tragic history?
7. The judge who awarded Ellen's custody to her grandmother expresses the common idea that a child should be with her own family, but Ellen objects. "What do you do when the judge talks about the family society's cornerstone but you know yours was never a Roman pillar but is and always has been a crumbly old brick?" [p. 56] she asks herself. Does Gibbons imply that a child's being with its biological family is not, after all, that important? Which is more important, the family you choose or the family you are born into?
8. Ellen does not believe in the church's version of God. "Chickenshit is what I would say" [p. 96], she says of Nadine's version of Heaven. But she does have her own version of God, and speaks to him on occasion. What sort of relationship does she have with the deity? What kind of deity is hefair or strict? Accessible or inaccessible? Forgiving or unforgiving? How much of his character derives from the traditional God about whom the church has taught her?
9. The society around Ellenparticularly her mother's familytries to make her feel guilty about many of her actions, even, in the case of her mama's mama, about her very existence. To what degree does Ellen share the feeling that she herself is guilty? Are the acts she feels guilty about the same ones she is blamed for by the people around her? She seems deeply concerned with the idea of personal atonement. What are her feelings about atonement and how does she herself atone by the end of the novel?
10. Money and the good and bad effects of having it or not having it are a recurring issue in Ellen Foster. Ellen baldly states, "All I really cared about accumulating was money. I saved a bundle" [p. 61]. In the book, economic status is often integrated into character descriptions or included in the rationale for characters' actions. How does Gibbons depict money as a force in people's lives? Is money, in and of itself, deemed to be either good or evil?
11. In Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons has chosen not to use quotation marks for dialogue. Look at passages like the ones on pages 32; 47 and 48; and 1
12. How do you know who is speaking? Are we listening only to Ellen, or listening in on a private conversation? How does the author's decision not to use quotation marks affect the reading experience?
12. "Dora, let me tell you a thing or two," Ellen says. "There is no Santa Claus" [p. 107]. Yet, on Christmas Eve, Ellen longs to hear something landing on the roof. Having been deprived of her own childhood illusions, she hates Dora for retaining all of hers, but in spite of Starletta's happy Christmas and her toys, Ellen does not hate Starletta. What is the difference between Dora's and Starletta's innocent belief in Santa Claus? What does the Christmas scene as a whole say about the characters of Dora and Nadine? What does it say about family, childhood, innocence, and celebration?
13. What does Ellen's encounter with the school psychiatrist tell us about Ellen? What does it tell us about the psychiatrist and the kind of therapy he practices? How effective is the therapy as a tool for dealing with children like Ellen? Is it the psychiatrist's personal defects that keep it from working with Ellen, or would it be equally ineffective no matter who the practitioner was?
14. Two of the primary metaphors that recur throughout the novel are the magician and the microscope. What do you think each symbolizes? Who is the magician? How do his "appearances" after the deaths of Ellen's mother and father affect her internalization of the events? Why does the novel's diction change so markedly during these passages?
15. Why has Gibbons chosen the quotation from Emerson's Self-Reliance to begin her novel? How does the quotation relate to the text, to the character of Ellen, and to Gibbons's stated and implied themes? What has the novel itself to say about the attribute of self-reliance? Do you find that the novel's focus upon that quality places it within a particular tradition of American literature? What other American novels does Ellen Foster echo? If you have read Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, can you compare the two novels? Would it be fair to say that Ellen Foster is a female version of that very masculine story? How does the concept of "self-reliance" mold both books?